New York City will pay more than $13 million to over 1,000 protestors interacting or arrested by police during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests following the civil rights lawsuit settlement Wednesday in a Manhattan federal court.
According to experts, the settlement allows the city to avoid trial and would be among the most expensive payouts ever for mass arrests. It will still need to be approved by a judge before it is finalized.
The lawsuit focused on 18 protests that erupted during the week following George Floyd’s death in May in New York City. According to attorneys for the plaintiffs, eligible individuals can receive $9,950 in compensation.
Attorneys for the city maintained that police officers were responding to an unprecedented, chaotic situation and highlighted unruly protests where officers were pelted with plastic bottles and rocks and police vehicles were set on fire.
City attorneys said there was no systematic effort to deprive people of their right to protest.
“There is no history — or present or future — of unconstitutional policing,” said Georgia Pestana, attorney for the city, in a memo. “There is no frequent deprivation of constitutional rights.”
The city also invoked qualified immunity, protecting police officers from lawsuits stemming from lawful work performed in the line of duty.
The settlement doesn’t force the NYPD to change its policing practices, unlike other lawsuits aimed at injunctive relief. It remains ongoing, like the one brought by Letitia James, New York Attorney General.
Another class action settlement announced earlier this year would award $21,500 to demonstrators arrested in the Bronx. The payout could total around $10 million when legal fees are included.
More than 600 people have brought individual claims against New York City in separate related police action during the 2020 protests, according to Brad Lander, the city’s comptroller. Case settlements have cost the city almost $12 million.
Plaintiffs accused NYPD leaders of depriving protestors of their 1st Amendment rights
National Lawyers Guild attorneys, representing the New York plaintiffs, accused NYPD leaders of depriving protesters of their 1st Amendment rights through a “coordinated” campaign of unlawful arrests and indiscriminate brutality.
During some of the 2020 protest marches, NYPD officers used a crowd control tactic known as kettling against the protestors, corralling them into compact spaces and using pepper spray and batons on them before making mass arrests.
The city invoked qualified immunity, which protects police officers from lawsuits that stem from lawful work performed in the line of duty, and defended the decision to arrest legal observers and medics as within the department’s rights.
While the plaintiffs’ attorneys cited past crackdowns on large demonstrations, including during the 2004 GOP National Convention, as evidence of longstanding “systemic violations” by the NYPD, city attorneys said there was no systematic effort to deprive people of their right to protest.
“There is no history — or present or future — of unconstitutional policing,” wrote Georgia Pestana, attorney for the city, in a memo. “There is no frequent deprivation of constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit named retired NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and former Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with other police leaders, as defendants. Under the settlement agreement, neither the NYPD nor the city must admit wrongdoing.
Protesters arrested on specific charges, including property destruction, arson, trespassing, assaulting an officer, or weapons possession, will be excluded from the settlement. Those seen on video blocking police from making any arrests may also be ineligible.
In separate cases, more than 600 people have brought individual claims against New York City related to police action during the 2020 protests, according to Brad Lander, the city’s comptroller. Roughly half of them have resulted in resolutions and settlements, costing the city almost $12 million.
Attorney for the protesters in the class action lawsuit, Wylie Stecklow, said the growing cost to taxpayers should be a “red flag” for city leaders about the inability of the NYPD to correct its “decades-old problem with constitutionally compliant protest policing.”
“While the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, sometimes it needs reform to bend towards justice,” said Stecklow.